Veteran Dutch manager says team-talk before Wednesday's must-win game against Auckland City likely to be themed on being at centre of world's attention
Henk ten Cate interview: Al Jazira have chance to promote Abu Dhabi to 'hundreds of millions' at Club World Cup
Henk ten Cate concedes he is still to settle on his team-talk, still searching for the right words to elicit the right reaction.
His success with Al Jazira has been built significantly upon his ability to galvanise a group of players, an accomplished man-motivator who lifted the club last year to President’s Cup glory and then, in May, to only a second UAE top-flight title.
The reward for the latter is a place at the Fifa Club World Cup, beginning this week and taking place in the Emirates for the third time and first in seven years. It features six different continental champions, including Real Madrid.
Qualifying as host representatives, Jazira must defeat Club World Cup veterans Auckland City in a play-off in Al Ain on Wednesday night to secure a spot in the quarter-finals. Should they make the last four, Madrid lay in wait.
Yet Ten Cate is not looking that far ahead. In fact, he has routinely warned against it. For now, he is concerned only with getting his team set for Auckland. It makes that final team-talk on Wednesday, before his players leave the dressing room at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, incredibly important.
It makes Ten Cate’s role all the more pivotal.
“I haven’t found the right key yet as to what to tell them, how to prepare them for this game,” the Dutchman says at Emirates Palace Sports Complex last Wednesday, one week out from Auckland.
Asked what his message to his team would be, he pauses, then replies: “’Do you realise that maybe billions, or hundreds of millions of people are watching you? It’s promoting Al Jazira but especially Abu Dhabi, so do you understand how important this tournament is for your club and for your country?'
“’And also for yourself? You’ll be in the spotlight like never before. How many times in your life will you get to participate in a tournament like this?’ It’s something special. It’s huge, man. Huge.”
The significance extends to Ten Cate. At 62, he is coming to the conclusion of a managerial career that has taken him to, among others, Barcelona, Chelsea and Ajax. He has seen almost everything, nearly done it all. Last season, he even considered retiring.
The allure of the Club World Cup has helped him sustain. Ten Cate missed the 2006 tournament having six months earlier left his role as assistant manager at European champions Barcelona to take the main job at Ajax. His initial memories of the inter-continental competition derive from its earlier incarnation, when the European Cup winners met South America’s champions in an one-off match.
In the 1970s, Ten Cate watched Ajax and Feyenoord clash with Argentina’s Independiente and Estudiantes, matches he describes as “real battles, on the edge of being brutal”. He expects nothing of the sort come Wednesday, but the tournament means no less because of that. Even with everything that has gone before, he has not lost his thirst to compete.
“It’s something special for me as well, being responsible for a team competing in this tournament,” Ten Cate says. “I’ve never participated before, so for me it’s new also. It’s not Real Madrid, but still it is special. I feel that it is. And, of course, I want to be in it as long as possible.
“Every game is a challenge. You’re only as good as your last match. This is football. I have to prepare myself also, even though I’m not hunting for a career any more. But being a sportsman, I love to compete on the highest level and I love to win matches, because this is my life: trying to win as many matches as possible and convincing players to have the same feeling, to go for it and to challenge.”
It has surprised Ten Cate, to a certain extent, that his players seem so non-plussed. A number of issues have blighted Jazira’s 2017/18 season thus far, leaving the champions fourth in the Arabian Gulf League after 10 rounds. It has distracted somewhat from the Club World Cup. Not that the players particularly needed it.
“I’ve never seen these players nervous,” Ten Cate says. “For anything. Never. It’s different. Normally in Europe you see white faces, but not here. Probably it has to do with the culture as well, and maybe not realising what this means: as a player, competing at the highest level.
“This is something amazing. There are some players who can showcase themselves to the world. You never know what might happen - maybe a big offer rolls in. But this is daydreaming, I think.
“First of all we should qualify against Auckland. This is not going to be easy, because also for them it’s a chance of a lifetime, so I feel it’s going to be a very tight match. May the best win, and if we’re not the best, may the luckiest win.”
Ten Cate has watched Auckland on video, identifying their “English-style football”. Even though they are an amateur team, the Oceania champions are competing in a record ninth Club World Cup.
Ten Cate acknowledges that could be an advantage, but he is confident too in his own side’s quality, despite it being their inaugural appearance. And as hosts. Still, maybe their apparent calm bodes well.
“On the one hand it’s good, because there’s no tension, no stress, no pressure,” Ten Cate says. “But on the other hand, can you imagine how big this is? That’s why the first game is the key game because if you win that you play at least two more matches. And in a single game anything can happen.
“I’m not talking about us playing Real Madrid. First things first, we have to beat Auckland. And I don’t care how we beat them as a long as we do. It doesn’t have to go in a nice way, or a spectacular way, just as long as we qualify for the tournament. This is the most important thing.”
Ten Cate has much to do in the build-up. Media commitments have increased notably, to such an extent that he is welcoming to the UAE a number of journalists from leading newspapers in the Netherlands. He believes that, much like his players, he is representing both Jazira and his homeland.
Ten Cate insists he is not nervous – he is too long in the tooth for that – but accepts that come just before kick-off on Wednesday, that sensation will begin to bubble, when he goes through his checklist and prepares his team-talk.The team-talk.
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It may not be completely finalised, yet he will surely reference the difficult path plotted to this point. Ten Cate arrived at Jazira in December 2015 with the team threatened by relegation. He leads them now as the UAE’s representatives at the Fifa Club World Cup.
“If you realise that we came from nowhere,” he says. “Really nowhere. Nobody would've expected us to win the President’s Cup, and then again the league with a record number of points and goals. And now participating in this tournament. This is the cherry on the cake.
“And I hope my players start realising this. That ‘hey guys, we did something special last year, but the final is yet to come’. And this is it. I hope my staff and I will be able to get the team super motivated to fight for their lives in that one particular game, at least to start with.
“Go to the next round, to the tournament, to participate really in the tournament. Auckland is a semi-final. Win this and you go to the tournament. That's the final for us, the result of all that hard work. Hopefully we will succeed to do so.
"Because this is huge. This is really huge.”